Downing St is watching you

28th September 2001 at 01:00
Education Secretary Estelle Morris has a lot of people to answer to in Tony Blair's new education hierarchy. Biddy Passmore reports on the pecking order

Prime Minister Tony Blair now has a firmer grip than ever on education after post-election changes at Downing Street and the Cabinet Office.

Andrew Adonis, his education adviser and chief author of the recent White Paper, has been promoted to head of policy at 10 Downing Street, where he will still keep a watchful eye on education.

Standards guru Michael Barber has moved from the Department for Education and Skills to become head of the Prime Minister's unit, charged with delivering improvements in health, crime reduction, transport and education.

Both moves consolidate the hold of the centre on the development and delivery of education policy.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Estelle Morris seems to have significant gaps in her policy machine. She has two new special advisers - neither of them an education expert - a fairly new permanent secretary, and a fast-disappearing team of key advisers and officials.

Adverts were placed last week for a successor to Mr Barber as head of the department's 275-strong standards and effectiveness unit, and for a new chief inspector when Mike Tomlinson leaves next April.

Now David Hargreaves has announced his premature departure from the post of chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, bringing the number of key vacancies to three, although Mr Hargreaves is to become an adviser to the Education Secretary.

"Estelle Morris will need lots of powers of assertiveness," said one policy insider. "I think she's got them," he added.

She also has departmental experience. Her successful campaign to water down the privatisation proposals in the White Paper showed the Prime Minister's respect for her knowledge of what was possible.

But it would be wrong to see No 10 and the DFES as locked in an endless power struggle over policy. There have certainly been occasions when one side has triumphed over the other: David Blunkett's firm veto of top-up fees for students, a scheme cherished by Mr Adonis, is one.

But mostly relations have been cordial, with daily contact between Downing Street and the department and a surprising degree of agreement on policy direction.

Traditional barriers between civil servant and political appointee also seem to have broken down. When David Normington, now permanent secretary at the DFES, visited Kingshurst CTC in April this year, he wrote an ecstatically enthusiastic memo to Andrew Adonis at No 10: "Andrew, it has to be seen to be believed. What you can achieve..!" - something inconceivable a few years ago.

Just as all major press statements have to be approved by Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's director of communications, so ministers and advisers accept that policy needs to be agreed with the centre too.

With the publication of the White Paper, and the general cry from heads to reduce the burden of new initiatives, the emphasis is now shifting from making policy to promoting and delivering it. The Government knows that it will be judged on results in four or five years' time.

Mr Blair's insistence on meeting key public service ministers and Mr Barber last week, before setting off on his international tour, shows his concern not to lose momentum.

Ministers already seem to be consulting fewer policy "movers and shakers", taking more advice from past and present headteachers on how to implement policy in schools.

Heads like Peter Clark, former head of the Ridings, who has become a DFES adviser on challenging schools, and Sir Bruce Liddington, former head of a Northamptonshire school and now in the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, are key figures.

A new Schools Innovation Unit has been set up to spread good practice. Last week, a departmental "roadshow" on the White Paper proposals is said to have reached one in 10 heads.

Press promotion of the Government's education message will be strengthened by two new appointments at the DFES. One of Estelle Morris's new special advisers is Chris Boffey, former news editor of the Sunday Telegraph and a friend of Alastair Campbell.

The other is DJ Collins, now head of communications at the engineers' and electricians' union AEEUW, who is to become head of news.

The secretary of state's other special adviser is Will Cavendish, an ex-academic and former head of policy for the Labour party, who will take charge of the policy side.

With the promotion of Mr Adonis to head of policy, daily liaison between Downing Street and the DFES falls to the new education adviser at No 10, Patrick Diamond.

Mr Diamond is described as "archetypal New Labour - but not an education specialist". In his mid-20s, he followed a Cambridge degree with a stint running an organisation called Progress, set up to educate party members in New Labour thinking, before becoming special adviser to Peter Mandelson at the Northern Ireland office.

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